Oberhausen: Past glories and present highlights

in 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Martin Botha

The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, founded in 1954, is one of the oldest (and famous) short film festivals in the world. For me as a professor of film studies the festival signifies several important moments in the history of cinema. During the 1950s it became an international short film mecca thanks to the involvement of giants in cinema such as François Truffaut, Norman McLaren, Alain Resnais, Bert Haanstra, Lindsay Anderson and others. At the fourth festival in 1958, 190 films from 29 countries were already included in the program. It is also famous for its involvement in the creation of a new German cinema. At the eighth festival in 1962 a group of young German filmmakers, Alexander Kluge, Peter Schamoni, and Edgar Reitz among them, issued the Oberhausen Manifesto, pronouncing the “old” German cinema dead and declaring their aspiration to create a new kind of German film. As a lover and teacher of the New German Cinema of especially the 1970s, Oberhausen signified new voices and bold, innovative filmmaking. Furthermore, the festival also became a platform during the 1970s for the women’s movement, with young filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman and Helma Sanders-Brahms screening their first films in Oberhausen.

During the years the festival developed into a showcase as mediator and trailblazer between the worlds of a short film, music video, video art, and the avant-garde. In 1999 Oberhausen introduced the first film festival award for music videos anywhere in the world, known as the MuVi, which is still today awarded exclusively to directors for the visual quality of their work. With the rise of video art more and more films made by visual artists have found their way into the festival programs.

This year was no exception and unfortunately, there was no time to view the German Cinema competition. I participated in the International Film Competition. According to the festival organizers the online edition of the 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen from 13 to 18 May 2020 has proved far more successful than expected. In total, Internet users in nearly 100 countries watched the festival films on the net. Well over 2500 festival passes were sold in around 60 countries; over 1000 trade visitors from almost 70 countries attended the online festival.

In terms of educational institutions 33 school classes, or around 1000 pupils, took up the Festival’s special offer to see short films, mostly in homeschooling situations. The professional events were also well attended: around 200 students from 14 universities and colleges as well as over 50 educators took part in the webinars and online conferences. Even the traditional MuVi Online Audience Award benefited, with a record number of more than 2500 votes. On Monday, 18 May 2020, the festival ended with the online award ceremony. 20 prizes with a total value of almost 42,000 Euros were awarded online.

The FIPRESCI Prize went to Li Xiaofei’s I Am the People_I (2020) for an intelligent, slow-burning portrait of a society and its courageous, yet necessarily indirect, diagnosis of that society. Challenging traditional modes of perception, it explores the relationship between industrial production and social development. Xiaofei combines interviews with people from diverse backgrounds with repetitive shots of the industrial setting. At the end of the brief interviews the viewer is confronted with the reactions of the subjects of the interviews – a fascinating gallery of faces without any further dialogue. 

Two other films were personal highlights: Cuban director Lázaro Lemus’s The Many Deaths of Aristides (Las muertes de Arístides, 2019) and What We Still Can Do (2019), which won the ZONTA Prize for a female filmmaker in the International or German Competition. 

The Many Deaths of Aristides is a sublime depiction of memory. It has been characterized by an intimate approach to the subject of war, life, and death, I admired the animation of a silhouetted figure, journeying on a boat through the darkness with the frozen moments of time as viewers listen to the letter of a young man that never returned home. By means of static shots and stills the film makes memory alive and destroys time boundaries, transcending visually what cannot be described in words, and as such it is a work of pure cinema.

I loved Nora Ananyan’s What We Still Can Do for its sensitive portrayal of a mother and daughter. The mother is in a hospice and from the beginning of the film the viewer is painfully aware of her frail condition. It is like being in a Bergman setting with impressions of her fading life and those moments we share before we pass on. 

These three films were my favorites in the International Film Competition. Sadly, there was no time to explore the other sections of the festival. It would have been a great opportunity to establish whether the current selection does match the past glory of work at the festival.

Martin Botha